By Todd Ciolek
If fame is a curse, it?s perhaps most damning for the celebrities who aren?t actually real. After all, stars who destroy themselves in whirlwinds of booze, heroin and ill-advised ?concept? albums at least bear some responsibility for putting themselves there. Entirely fictional characters have no choice. They?re at the mercy of writers, directors, artists, producers, marketers, and, in the worst cases, their fans.
Caving in to the wrong type of fan has sullied, overexposed and devalued countless potentially likable characters, proving that getting what you want is often the worst thing imaginable. We?ve chosen ten such fallen characters from the whole of geek canon.
10) Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean
We?re not about to deny that Johnny Depp?s mincing, quick-witted pirate captain was the best thing about Pirates of the Caribbean, and, in the sequels, perhaps the only good thing. But his appeal grew milder as the sequels arrived and turned him goofier and goofier. It was fine in the first film because no one really expected it?he was a cartoonish Disney attraction made cinematic flesh, pulling it off better than even the most devoted theme-park enthusiast would have expected.
Those expectations might?ve been too high, or perhaps too low. We didn?t really want to see significantly different or better films with Dead Man?s Chest and At World?s End. For the most part, we just wanted Jack mugging and skipping and generally being more like a Warner Bros. cartoon character than ever before. And we got just that. Serves us right.
9) GLaDOS from Portal
It?s not just the manipulative A.I. named GLaDOS that?s been sullied by fans; just about everything that made Portal an amusing game has been offered up for sacrifice on the altar of the Internet Meme. Portal?s full of clever ideas beyond its basic concept: the catty bitch of a computer is an excellent villain, the storyline feeds off the level design well, and the concept of the Weighted Companion Cube is amusing and even bizarrely touching in a broken-toy way.
Of course, people had to spoil it. It wasn?t long before everyone with the slightest interested in videogames knew the truth of GLaDOS?s promises about cake and the complete lyrics to ?Still Alive? whether or not they had actually played Portal. Yes, the cake is a lie. The Companion Cube must be destroyed and it?s very sad. Just let us play the game.
8) Cloud Strife from Final Fantasy VII
Perhaps the best thing about any given Final Fantasy is that it ends. We?re not being snide here; the series has lasted for years (and through scads of jokes about how it?s never the Final Fantasy, har har) simply because it reboots with each game, starting over with a different cast of largely stereotyped characters and changing just enough design elements to piss off half the people who liked like the previous game.
Or at least it used to do that. In Final Fantasy VII, Cloud was an iconic spikish-haired amnesiac mercenary, both an insecure everywimp and, in time, a vengeful hero. He had problems, he overcame them, he watched the more spirited of his two love interests die, and then he saved the world. And, good or bad, it should have ended there.
It didn?t, of course. Years down the road, Square revived Final Fantasy VII with Advent Children, which did little more than re-enact Cloud?s bout with insecurity and indecision, and then brought him back for games like Crisis Core and Dirge of Cerberus. The only thing changed: he?s much prettier. And for most Final Fantasy fans, that makes far too much of a difference.
7) Venom from Spider-Man
Some longtime comic fans like to point out that Venom is a weakly written and overused villain, and really just a monstrous version of Spider-Man when you get down to it. Yet there?s one reason he?s popular: nearly all of the other Spider-Man villains are either laughable nutjobs in Halloween costumes or bizarre, one-joke pushovers, reflecting the fact that Spider-Man himself wasn?t all that serious to start with. The slavering, fanged wreck of Venom is as imposing as you can get.
Unsurprisingly, Venom was a hit with kids of the ?80s, when all of the superhero icons established in decades past started to look a little bit lame. A hideous Giger-ian Spider-Alien was just what the youth of America looked for in their comics, and they got a little too much of it. Before long, Venom inspired a spin-off villain called Carnage, a clone of a clone. And by then, the ?80s were long over.
6) Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons
The clearest sign that a TV show has lived too long: it devotes entire episodes to what were formerly one-joke characters. Such was the descent of Comic Book Guy, the bloated, bearded, sarcastic nerd-of-all-trades who started as a plot framer in a single Simpsons episode and returned time and time again. Fans eventually adopted him as a self-mocking stereotype of hardcore geekery, and there was a time when he was perhaps the most quoted Simpsons character; no small feat, when you think about it.
Then the show made that fateful mistake: it paid too much attention to Comic Book Guy. A good chunk of one episode focused on him recuperating after a heart attack, and it wasn?t so much that the script had him finding love with Principal Skinner?s mother. It was that other characters actually referred to him as ?Comic Book Guy.? It was the end of an illusion, the fateful acknowledgment of the writers and the fans becoming one. Any point from The Simpsons? last eight years could be the moment where it all went wrong, but we prefer to single out the one where Comic Book Guy became a collapsing black hole of an in-joke. We learned his real name, Jeff Albertson, a while after that, but it didn?t really matter then.
Perhaps the biggest thing to emerge from the largely disposable grim-and-gritty superhero comics fad of the ?90s, Spawn fell from grace on three fronts. There were the comics, which grew steadily less interesting after an initial Faustian push and eventually degenerated into the eponymous hero, a self-cursed instrument of hell itself, fighting a big robotic ape called Cy-Gor. There were the many non-comic off-shoots that didn?t quite take, whether it was a lousy movie, an awful PlayStation game or an HBO animated series that went unfairly neglected after three seasons.
And then there were the toys, which were actually a huge success, giving rise to all sorts of subdivisions, both Spawn-related and otherwise. At some point in the last decade, the toys became more prominent than the Spawn comics or cartoons. Perhaps Spawn, a character forged in the collecting-crazed time of ?90s comic nerdery, attracted too many fans who?d rather buy things than actually read them.
4) Rei Ayanami from Neon Genesis Evangelion
The true meaning of Neon Genesis Evangelion will forever be debated by anime extremists, even when the show?s creators publicly yell at its fans to move on with their lives. Rei Ayanami?s characterization is pretty obvious, at least: she?s a pseudo-clone of the main character?s long-missing mother, and her creepy, silent demeanor reflects the fact that she has no identity of her own.
Intentionally or not, Rei became the show?s most popular character, a blank onto which fans could project anything. Perhaps that?s why Rei, more so than any Evangelion character with a defined personality, is the most prominent in all of its related merchandise from innocuous coffee cans to mermaid statues to horrifying live-size plastic surrogate girlfriends, turning a symbol of formless identity into a symbol of just how rich and desperate hardcore anime fans can be.
3) Severus Snape from Harry Potter
From reading the earlier Harry Potter books, it?s evident that the series? comically mean-spirited potions instructor was never intended as a fan favorite, at least not in the way that fans eventually favored him. Instead of another idiosyncratic stereotype, he became some gloomy goth icon, a hero to anyone who?s ever worn a black coat to third-period chemistry on a summer?s day.
For this, we don?t blame the fans so much as we blame Alan Rickman. Despite his eventual heroic turns, Snape?s description in the books is ratlike and off-putting. Rickman?s performance in the films changed all that, playing up the snide, amusing disdain that we all loved in Galaxy Quest. And the fans took to it ravenously, to the point where reading the last Harry Potter brick is a fight to avoid groaning at every Snape scene, and the hordes of Severus worshippers who were surely shrieking with joy over them.
2) Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic?s decline is the lament of many an over-devoted game nerd, as it coincides with the equally obvious fall of Sega itself. But while Sega went from beating Nintendo in market share to making games for its former competitors, Sonic?s slide was far more bizarre. From the moment it was declared that he liked chili dogs, the hedgehog was a blatant attempt at replicating Ninja Turtle-level popularity, and it showed in the ?90s cartoons fashioned around Sonic, though rarely in the games themselves.
As the decade ended, Sega was faced with two possible routes: Sonic as a silent, plot-free, jumping-speeding mascot with a less-is-more sense of style, or Sonic as a slang-spouting gimmick with a horde of animal friends and some ridiculous backstory cobbled together from the rarely seen ?90s Felix the Cat movie and a bucket of anime clich?s. By 1999, Sega had seen what the fans wanted, and they made their choice. Sonic Adventure, the hedgehog?s would-be game comeback on the Dreamcast, began with him exclaiming ?Oh yeah! This is happenin?!? and fighting huge watery aliens while butt-rock guitar strains echoed.
1) Boba Fett from Star Wars
Boba Fett?s fatal popularity is the result of not only his fans, but of the massive sub-industry of Star Wars books, comics, and videogames devoted to exploring the backstories of every single character, object and musical note that has appeared in the original Star Wars trilogy (the prequels, less so). And in that trilogy, Boba Fett was an engaging side attraction to the larger story, as a resourceful bounty hunter who had his moment and met his fate in a big ol? desert vagina dentata. No one really new anything about him; those of us under eight pretty much assumed he was actually a robot or something. And that made us like him even more.
And so, in the years between Return of the Jedi and any sort of new Star Wars material, we got tired of playing with our Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader figures and turned to the best of the second-string characters. And there was Boba, with his rocket pack and rope gun and missile that our friend down the street swore could fire on the Boba Fett he owned and never showed us.
No one seemed to understand that Fett?s limited presence was what made him cool: as simply a well-designed spacesuit with a Western gunfighter?s swagger, he filled in as a minor villain and did it well. But then came the comics about him. And the short stories about him surviving that tumble into the Sarlacc. And him being a sour-faced brat in the prequels. There?s a lot in the Star Wars ?Expanded Universe? best ignored, but Fett?s path from efficient ne?er-do-well to adulated antihero laid bare everything wrong with hardcore Star Wars fans.